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Film Review: The Hangover

The Hangover (2009; Directed by Todd Phillips)

I’ll say this first so that there’s no misapprehending the meaning of the analysis that follows: The Hangover, whose widely-anticipated sequel comes out this Friday, is a very funny movie. Outright hilarious, mostly. But it’s also an obvious product of the Hollywood man-child comedy grist mill that endlessly glorifies tropes of bacchanalian chauvinism while reducing women (and men) to stereotyped (and sometimes offensive) objectified gender roles.

Dudes... are WE gonna get towed?

More on that complaint in a moment, but it behooves me to say that I laughed a lot through this movie, and really, that’s the point, ultimately. Director Todd Phillips (who was responsible for Old School, its forthcoming sequel, and several other uninspiring studio comedies) and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (whose resume is really too generic and embarrassing to even merit mention) have crafted a slick big-budget comedy with a likable-enough trio of leads and plenty of sly lines planted between the Outrageous Antics.

There’s been a lot written about the supposed puzzle-like complexity of the plot, and maybe a few ill-thought-out intimations of the influence of detective fiction on the script. While the key elements are withheld at first and slowly trickle out (sometimes to great comedic effect), our heroes are less amateur sleuths than bumbling minor crooks. They don’t tease out the clues with ingenious effort as much as get slapped upside the head with them; they don’t track down the clues so much as try desperately to stay one step ahead of the dire consequences of those clues. The resulting narrative is certainly more temporally complex than your average frat-boy gagfest, but it’s hardly the comic inversion of detective conventions that, say, The Big Lebowski is. Lucas and Moore seem to have watched more Coens comedies than they’ve understood. For every occasion in which we laugh in delight at some obscure forgotten detail being revealed, there’s a long dialogue scene with scattered jokes explaining another detail. It’s a mixed blessing that one ought to take at face value.

For such an aggressively plot-driven comedy, it’s a bit surprising to see so many solid comic performances. Bradley Cooper makes for an affable lead, even if there’s very little that’s remotely unique about him as an actor: he looks, sounds, moves, and emotes like dozens of handsome-rogue types before him and no doubt like many dozens to follow. Ed Helms does the pent-up square quite well, as his history on The Daily Show and The Office bears out. He’s certainly got the skill-set and the timing to do what Steve Carrell’s done, and his hilarious mid-film song shows that he has other skills as well. Zach Galifianakis is the real revelation, though, giving the socially-underdevelopped man-child stock character an oddball twist. The commitment with which he reads his simpleton gnomicisms makes them all funny, even the lines that wouldn’t be so funny on the page. Galifianakis is on a different wavelength than everyone else in the movie. He’s not cool awkward (like, say, Michael Cera is in his one-note way), he’s awkward awkward. And that makes him deeply hilarious.

Don't tell me I slept with THE CHICKEN last night!

Really, the film’s joys ought not to be drawn out in detail, but rather checked off in isolation. The tiger in the bathroom. The baby and the car door. The wedding merchandise. The chubby kid with the taser. Stu’s missing tooth. The Holocaust ring line. Mike Tyson air-drumming to Phil Collins. The tiger in the car. I could go on. But there are lags here and there (one or two scenes too many of the trio loitering somewhere and wondering what to do next), as well as some filmic missteps: Phillips overdoes it on the pop-hits soundtrack, never earns the ominously artsy time-lapse shots of Vegas sights over the opening credits, criminally underuses Jeffrey Tambor, and goes a bit broad with the flying equations swirling around Galifianakis’ head as he card-counts their way to thousands of dollars in a casino.

What’s ultimately most objectionable about The Hangover is not its gross-out comedy (of which there is a lot), but its male-tilted gender ideology. Like most Hollywood comedies, it’s written, directed, and starring men, and, like Old School, its sensibility skews towards the interests and perspectives of grown-up frat-boys. Women can occupy one of three roles in this masculine universe: 1) The pretty but distant significant other, who sits by completely oblivious of her man’s actions (Sasha Barrese’s worried bride Tracy fits this bill, at one point sunning gratuitously in a bikini while Cooper dissembles over the phone about her fiance’s whereabouts); 2) The fun and undemanding fantasy girl with loose sexual morals (enter Heather Graham, as an escort who is also a stripper); and 3) The ball-breaking feminazi bitch who makes her henpecked boyfriend’s life a living hell and who must be dumped so her put-upon man can be free to hang with his buddies (Rachael Harris gamely plays the thankless part of holding Helms’ feet to the fire). I’m not exactly sure which of these archetypes is the most objectionable, though the latter clearly comes off as such in this film and is generally far too common in this type of comedy.

So many of the film’s funniest moments play out in the complete absence of women that the stereotyping doesn’t necessarily detract from the hilarity when it most counts (although the most troubling aspect of the homosocial norm of the patriarchy may well be its total exclusion of the “fairer sex”). And one could reasonably argue that a big summer comedy about a bachelor party that gets out of control may not be the most obvious place to look for progressive portrayals of gender relations on the big screen (the men are not exactly busting free of their proscribed roles either, it should be noted). Still, these things can nag at the conscience even through the laughter. While there’s plenty of the latter in The Hangover, there’s enough of the former to preclude unmitigated praise. If such concerns matter to you, you’ll laugh with some measure of doubt; if they don’t, you’ll probably like it (and, no doubt, its sequel) even more.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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